Monday, February 16, 2009

Review: Deer Tick - War Elephant (* * * *)

Chalk another one up for " 2008 albums I should have heard but didn't and now that I have I'm realizing how much great music was released last year." Actually, Deer Tick's debut album, War Elephant, was originally released in 2007 but was re-released near the end of last year through Partisan Records, complete with the slightly bizarre cover art you see pictured here. Deer Tick's story is an interesting one, and while the band is now four members, War Elephant was recorded solely by singer/songwriter John McCauley III.

McCauley, just 19 when the album was written and recorded, creates music well beyond his years. His world-weary, slightly nasally voice, broken stories, and classic folk sound feel like the work of someone with a great deal more life experience. In fact, you may wonder whether McCauley could possibly understand the amount of pain and loneliness contained within War Elephant or whether he simply knows enough to spin a good yarn. Either way, the lyrics throughout the album are both intelligent and emotional. Stories like "Dirty Dishes" and "Christ Jesus" are filled with melancholy, while songs like the lover's plea, "Spend The Night," take themselves a bit less seriously.

Musically, the album swings between finger-picked ballads - like the simply beautiful opener, "Ashamed," and the more fleshed-out, "Diamond Rings 2007" - and folk-rockers, especially the aforementioned "Spend The Night" and the dirty, gritty "Sink or Swim." The variety helps the 14 tracks and 48 minutes to pass without feeling as long as it might otherwise and McCauley's skill with a guitar and keys add subtle layers and a few surprises to the music and keep things interesting throughout. "These Old Shoes" includes a messy, noisy electric guitar solo, "Baltimore Blues No. 1" has an almost reggae feel to it underneath the southern rock exterior, and the fantastic "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)" has some strings and slide guitar thrown in that give the song the feeling of being lifted directly from an old country western album.

It looks as if Deer Tick have big plans for 2009, including at least one new album on the way, but War Elephant is a solid debut that ranks among the best folk records of 2008 and certainly deserves your attention. You can download "Long Time" at my previous post, or check out the band's homepage for more info.